Recovery still top of mind as Downtown BIZ aims to revitalize businesses, draw more people to city’s centre
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Chinatown looked different Thursday afternoon.
Cars lined the streets around Kum Koon Garden, taking spaces that might otherwise be empty on a weekday.
Inside, the Chinese restaurant was packed. At one table, Mayor Scott Gillingham and Elder Barbara Nepinak; at others, city councillors, non-profits, tourism industry leads and police officers.
“We can’t do this on our own,” said Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.
Less than an hour earlier, both she and Gillingham projected a future for the city’s core. They spoke to a crowd of at least 200 at the business improvement zone’s annual general meeting.
“What we saw here today was the community come together,” Fenske said. “I’m actually really excited about 2023.”
Recovery continues to be the buzzword. The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has budgeted more than $1.8 million for business development, advocacy and research next year, and another $1.7 million to clean, green and beautify the area.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunities,” Fenske said.
One comes in the form of Graham Avenue. Several businesses fled the strip during the pandemic, leaving empty storefronts behind. Some who remain have boarded up their windows because of crime.
Part of Winnipeg’s transit master plan calls for buses to quit frequenting the street; a portion of Graham now only allows for bus traffic.
“That leaves an opportunity then — what happens to Graham?” Fenske said. “Do cars go back on it? Do we look at creating more of a public space for people, more residential?”
Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, alongside the city and local organizations, will redesign the space in the coming years, she said.
“It’s also about connecting those key areas like The Forks and the art gallery,” Fenske said, adding that green corridors on Graham are also an option.
The BIZ will invest in revitalizing Air Canada Window Park, Broadway and space around Thunderbird House. It will also bring back ice sculptures this winter and focus on affordable housing, Fenske said.
“We cannot simply rely upon downtown office workers anymore, or visitors, to support our local businesses in the downtown economy,” Gillingham told the crowd.
The city will update its policies and zoning, allowing for easier conversions from office blocks to residential and mixed-use buildings, Gillingham said.
“We’re going to work with the provincial and federal governments to develop a package of incentives… that will lead to the development of new units of affordable housing in Portage Place,” he added.
Toronto’s Starlight Investments said it would convert the mall but backed out last year.
Gillingham also signalled intentions to cut red tape for restaurants wanting patio licences, to return funding to 2019 levels for the Winnipeg Arts Council — more than $4.6 million — and to cement permanent funding for the Downtown Community Safety Partnership, a non-emergency response and intervention crew.
“(Police are) so busy with crime response,” Gillingham said, noting the city will support cops to spend more time on crime prevention.
He pledged to work with various groups on transitioning Manitobans from the streets to safe housing.
“If we don’t support people first in our community, then none of the other stuff really matters,” Fenske said.
Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has budgeted $825,861 for safety, outreach and engagement next year.
Meantime, it’s continuing its Host It Downtown grant program, where companies are reimbursed for their downtown events, and the Building Business grant, which incentivizes companies to move to or renovate downtown units.
“We want to be focused and intentional, in terms of attracting new businesses,” Fenske said. “(We want) businesses that drive people to come downtown.”
Thirty per cent of ground-floor shops in the area are vacant, Fenske noted.
Still, she’s optimistic — 64 per cent of office workers are back, at least partially, according to Downtown Winnipeg BIZ data.
“It would be nice to see the workforce coming back,” said Shane Solomon, president of Republic Architecture.
Though some employees have returned, more could be done, especially from government offices, Solomon said.
Solomon, who volunteers on the Downtown BIZ board, rattled off the non-profit’s revenues and expenses Thursday: More than $3.1 million of the BIZ’s funding next year will come from its levy, which increased “just a hint” to around 2.4 per cent for downtown businesses, he said.
Almost $2.8 million comes from sponsorships and grants, among other contributions. The BIZ is transferring more than $295,000 from 2022 to 2023, and its reserve holds $250,000.
“Ensuring that money is wisely spent is always in the back of our minds,” Solomon said. “I feel good about things.”
So does Gilles Dugas, who lives downtown and has patrolled with the BIZ for 11 years.
“Things… went back rather than forward,” he said of downtown, noting the unhoused population. “(But) I’ve seen a lot of people come downtown and stay… even with the struggles.”
Winnipeg released its downtown recovery framework, which targets new housing and supporting vulnerable communities, among other things, last year.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.